The Aviator, the Explorer, and the Radio Man: The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition

A Little-Known Expedition

If you know anything about Admiral Richard E. Byrd, you probably know that he was the first to fly over the North and South Poles, and that he led several expeditions in Antarctica. However, you probably don’t know the story of his first Arctic expedition. In fact, most accounts muddy the details and depend solely on Byrd’s account, which leaves out the best part: the story of how three men, one Navy pilot (Byrd), one experienced Arctic explorer (Donald B. MacMillan), and one the founder of Zenith Radio (Eugene MacDonald), ushered in a modern era of polar exploration that included airplanes and successful radio communication.

Clips of six reels of footage (Local Identifier: BYRD-BYRD-84) from the 1925 expedition. Donated by Richard E. Byrd in 1938, along with films of his other polar expeditions. You can see the complete reels in our online catalog.

Before we can talk about Byrd’s 1925 expedition, we have to talk a little about Donald B. MacMillan. Accounts of the expedition frequently cast MacMillan as a rival of sorts who stole Byrd’s plan to take fixed-wing aircraft (basically an airplane rather than a gas-filled dirigible) to the Arctic and then wouldn’t let Byrd do his aviation work once they arrived in the Arctic. The glaring error in that narrative is, of course, that it’s not totally true. Letters and other textual evidence show that MacMillan’s plans to use planes for the 1925 expedition pre-date Byrd’s by months; Byrd seems to have changed his story when funding for his dirigible plan fell through (all of this is detailed in John H. Bryant and Harold N Cones’ book Dangerous Crossings). MacMillan probably did keep Byrd from making an attempt on the pole, but the weather had a lot to do with that, too.

The Explorer and the Aviator

So who was Donald MacMillan? In 1925, MacMillan was a somewhat famous Arctic explorer. With several Arctic expeditions to his name, MacMillan had spent more time in the region than any other living non-native. MacMillan accompanied Robert Peary on his 1908-09 (possibly) successful North Pole expedition, and spent four years stranded in Northwest Greenland while searching for an Arctic land mass called Crocker Land. It turned out Crocker Land didn’t exist, but MacMillan had other achievements on the expedition, including gathering scientific data about the region, shooting the first film in Greenland and compiling a dictionary of the native language of the Inuit. Since commissioning the schooner Bowdoin in 1921, MacMillan had also completed other journeys to the Arctic, always with scientists on board conducting experiments and collecting flora and fauna to advance knowledge of the region. In short, Donald MacMillan was someone the United States Navy could trust to safely lead an Arctic expedition.

An image of a white boat. The name reads "BOWDOIN". There are crew members on deck. The sails are not raised.

The Schooner Bowdoin was built in 1921 and designed for navigating Arctic waters. She has journeyed north of the Arctic Circle 28 times and currently serves as the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Still from BYRD-BYRD-84.

Richard Byrd may have the more recognizable name today, but in 1925, Byrd was an underdog of sorts. Certainly, he came from a prominent and influential Virginia family (one of the First Families of Virginia, in fact), had a solid naval career, and had invented some important tools for aerial navigation. The problem was he had yet to make a major mark on the world. Being the first to fly over the North Pole would bring acclaim to the Navy, and it would also put Byrd’s name in history books. Byrd was up against some stiff competition for the title, though, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen also planning an attempt in the summer of 1925.

Dashed Hopes and Dangerous Waters

In the months leading up to the summer of 1925, Byrd pursued a plan to acquire a dirigible and fly it over the North Pole. MacMillan, along with Eugene MacDonald, founder of Zenith Radio, planned to take the Bowdoin to Northwest Greenland and test radio communications. The two also held meetings with Navy officials to ask about acquiring an amphibious plane to look for land in the ice-covered Polar Sea. Any land discovered could be claimed for the United States, which would be a strategic coup for national defense. Clearly, the two men had very different goals; conflict was probably inevitable.

The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition left Wiscasset, Maine on July 20. MacMillan was reactivated as a naval officer and put in command of the expedition while Byrd took charge of the aviation unit. MacDonald was given command of a ship that he had purchased for the expedition and renamed the Peary. The party traveled north through unseasonably icy waters, eventually arriving in Etah, the community in Northwest Greenland where Donald MacMillan had previously been stranded for four years.

Travel was slower than Byrd would have liked, and he saw precious time slipping away. In his diary, Byrd griped that MacMillan was overcautious and unwilling to move forward; he even seemed to ascribe an ulterior motive to MacMillan’s decisions, as if MacMillan were intentionally trying to thwart Byrd. The loss of time and unexpected environmental conditions were fatal to Byrd’s plans. With no place to land, the aviation unit had difficulty establishing a base camp from which to launch exploratory flights over the Polar Sea. By the time conditions improved, it was time to start back home. There was certainly no extra time to attempt a flight over the North Pole.

  • At the launch of the expedition, Byrd (center), shows off an instrument of some sort while pilot Lt. M.A. Schur (left) looks on.
  • A scene on the deck of a ship. A smokestack

Stills from Richard Byrd’s unedited footage of the 1925 expedition (BYRD-BYRD-84)

MacMillan’s caution was not unwarranted, however–the summer was the coldest in living memory and ice clogging the waterways could have crushed the Peary or the Bowdoin. Other ships were destroyed that summer in those waters. In fact, there were many times that members of the expedition escaped death through a combination of luck and extreme skill. With no open water to land the amphibious planes, pilots that ran into engine trouble either had to climb out while in flight and hope they could fix it quickly, or anticipate a crash landing on the pressure ridges of the Arctic ice. Because of extreme cold, engine trouble was not uncommon. Even the journey home was complicated by the remnants of an active hurricane season, but the Peary and the Bowdoin made it to safe harbor and every man made it home alive.

Talking to the North Pole

Right now you might be asking yourself if anything was actually accomplished by the time the expedition’s crew returned in October. It’s true–Richard Byrd was not able to make an attempt to fly over the North Pole, and the naval aviation unit never explored the Polar Sea, but the flights were valuable in the experimental sense. Future aviation efforts built on the experiences of the 1925 expedition. Further, making a flight over the North Pole may have been Byrd’s personal goal, but it was not actually a primary concern of the expedition.

In addition, really important advances were made in radio communications, the kind that are so fundamental that we just take them for granted today. Today we just assume that with the right technology we can talk to anyone anywhere, but even as recently as the 1920s, this was not the case. Donald MacMillan began his working relationship with Eugene MacDonald after he stated that the worst thing about being in the Arctic was not the cold or darkness, but the isolation. MacMillan knew about isolation: when a ship finally came to take MacMillan home after his four year Crocker Land expedition, he did not even know that the First World War was happening. He tried taking a radio on a later expedition, but discovered that it was useless in the Arctic. Eugene MacDonald stepped in and provided shortwave radios (medium wave by today’s classification) for MacMillan’s 1924 expedition, and the Arctic silence was broken.

For the 1925 expedition, Eugene MacDonald further tested the usefulness of shortwave radios in the Arctic, sending out messages to and from the States, and holding a concert of Inuit music that was received as far as New Zealand. MacDonald even conducted business with his Chicago office while on the Peary, possibly making him the first long-distance telecommuter.

The 1925 expedition, while not a source of glory for Richard Byrd, was by no means a failure.

About the records and sources:

The National Archives holds a large amount of motion picture material relating to the career of Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The films are found mainly in the Navy’s records, but are also in other military record groups, various newsreel series, in the Ford Motor Company collection, and, of course, in the films that Byrd gave to the Archives in 1938. MacMillan’s films of the 1925 expedition are held at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I was once a staff member).

Most of the information about the 1925 expedition came from John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones deeply researched book Dangerous Crossings: The First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925. In addition to the papers of Byrd, MacMillan, and MacDonald, Bryant and Cones consulted textual records held at NARA to complete the picture of the 1925 expedition.

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